by Rodney Stanford
(Reprinted with permission from “Insight,” Fall 2022.)
In the fall of 1970, in the rural Alabama town of Elkmont, my very pregnant mother was lying on our couch, waiting for my father to get me dressed so he could take me to my grandparents’ house, and her to the hospital in Athens, some 10 miles away. My just barely 2-year-old mind had grasped a vague concept that I was about to become a big brother. But that is about all I understood as I strode confidently up to comfort my mother. The words that would come out of my mouth that day would become a part of family lore for decades to come. “Just lay there and rest, Momma. Me and Daddy will go pick up little sister,” was a mouthful for a boy little more than a baby himself
My baby sister was to be named Molly, after my mother’s great-grandmother. But the boy who made his appearance later that day didn’t look like a Molly. So instead, Bradley Aaron Stanford joined our little family that day. He grew up to go by just Brad. And he grew up to be my best friend. We shared the same hereditary vision problem. (Many of you already know that I had very poor eyesight even before the stroke I suffered in 2016 took the best of what little I had.) We shared a childhood of moving around a lot, and not having very much in terms of money. And we shared the tragic premature loss of both our parents, Momma in 1995 to cancer, and Daddy in 2004 to heart disease related to diabetes.
I lost Brad too in April 2022. At the age of 51, he had a massive cardiac event and died in his sleep at his home in Chattanooga, Tenn.
I wanted to share this story specifically because of what happened after Brad passed.
Brad and his wife, Kim, were organ donors. Brad had been able, using some nifty modern technology, to get a license to drive in Tennessee, and had signed the back of his license to donate whatever could be used to help someone else. So they transported his body to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, harvested organs, and then transported him back to Chattanooga, where he was cremated. We’re going to dispose of his ashes in accordance with his wishes. Kim held a beautiful celebration of his life in Chattanooga, and another in Alabama for our family there.
Just before the memorial event in Chattanooga, and just about two months after Brad’s untimely death, Kim received a letter from the Tennessee organ donor program. It was mostly a form letter with a boilerplate message of thanks. But there was something very special at the end. The letter pointed out that it could sometimes take quite a while, even years, for all the harvested tissue to be used. But they wanted Kim to know specifically that the cornea from Brad’s left eye had already been used to restore sight to a patient in our home state of Alabama. And furthermore, the cornea from Brad’s right eye had been used as well, to restore the sight of a different patient, also in Alabama.
Brad was a huge man, mostly muscle. He was a competitive weightlifter. He was a multiple-time state champion in both Alabama and Tennessee. He dabbled in professional wrestling, played semi-pro football, and competed in “strongman” contests (like on ESPN, where they pull trucks and such). In fact, before I ever set foot in New York, Brad went to White Plains and competed in the National Deadlift Championship, where I think he finished third with a top lift of 650 pounds.
The thing that was so interesting to me, that made such an impression, was how the seeming “weakest” part of Brad’s body, his eyes, was the part that became such a blessing to someone in need.